Who Is In Charge

Plan would free P-20 spending from TABOR

An education advocacy group and a veteran legislator Wednesday proposed a solution to what they see as severe underfunding of education – exempting such spending from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Education funding news conference March 24, 2010
Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, (at microphone) helped unveil a new education funding plan at the Capitol on March 24, 2010. In background from left are state Reps. Judy Solano and Max Tyler, Lisa Weil of Great Education Colorado and Rep. Mike Merrifield.

A resolution proposing that change is expected to be introduced in the legislature this week by Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora. If approved by 44 representatives and 24 senators – a high hurdle – the measure would go on the November ballot.

Passage would mean lawmakers could raise taxes and other revenue without asking voter approval for those new levies, if the new funds were earmarked for education spending, from preschool to university.

Regardless of its ultimate fate, the proposal sets up an interesting discussion in a legislative session that’s been forced to make deep education cuts and has less than 50 days to run.

The idea is being pushed by Great Futures Colorado, a coalition organized by Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for improved school support.

Great Futures includes the Colorado PTA, Associated Students of Colorado, the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, Padres Unidos and a variety of smaller groups.

Like any political movement, the ballot-measure effort has an acronym – DECIDE. (That stands for Decide: “Educations Cuts or Invest in our Democracy and Economy.”)

“This is a crisis.” Colorado “may be heading into something of a lost decade” for schools, said Lisa Weil, Great Education policy director.

“We’re at the end; we can’t cut any more,” said an emotional Kristi Hargrove of Gunnison, a Great Education and PTA board member who identified herself as a Republican.

The proposal comes in the middle of a legislative session that is seeing unprecedented cuts in state support of K-12 education. Lawmakers already have sliced $130 million from current, 2009-10 spending. House Bill 10-1369, the proposed 2010-11 school finance bill that’s up for Senate committee consideration Thursday, would cut state school support next year to $5.4 billion. That’s $260 million less than actual state support in the current budget. The trim may go deeper before lawmakers are finished.

Compared to actual 2009-10 spending, the proposed cut is about 6 percent. When compared to what funding would have been under the full terms of Amendment 23, the reduction is more than 8 percent.

Budgets for state colleges and universities are being held stable only with federal stimulus money and 9 percent tuition increases, and those budgets face significant cuts in 2011-12 after the stimulus disappears.

Proposal faces stiff challenges

Despite lawmaker concern about those cuts, approval of Benefield’s resolution faces tough challenges. A referred constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each House – 44 representatives and 24 senators. Democrats hold majorities of 37 in the House and 21 in the Senate. Most Republicans are adamant opponents of tax increases and fierce defenders of TABOR, and many favor greater school choice and even vouchers as ways to deal with school funding.

(In 2008, even Andrew Romanoff, the popular Denver Democrat who then was House speaker, couldn’t gather sufficient support for a different school-funding plan, House Concurrent Resolutio 08-1014. Romanoff and supporters ultimately put the measure, called the Savings Account for Education, on the ballot by citizen petition, but it was defeated that November.)

“I can’t sit back and do nothing,” said Benefield when asked about the odds of passing her measure. “Let’s start the conversation.” She said her first move would be to approach the eight Republican representatives who voted no on HB 10-1369 Monday and seek their support for the resolution.

If the measure does make it to the ballot it would face other challenges. The high-profile races for U.S. senator and governor will draw a big share of attention and contributions. Many voters are still nervous about the economy, and some small-government groups and voters have been energized by the health care debate in Washington. And, some good-government groups may be more interested in fighting three ballot measures that would severely limit state and local government spending and borrowing.

Weil acknowledged that her coalition hasn’t yet worked on organizing or fundraising for a possible fall campaign.

The successful statewide fiscal measure Referendum C passed in 2005 with the broad-based and well-financed backing of business, civic groups and both parties, including Republican Bill Owens, governor at the time. (Ref C was a five-year TABOR “timeout” that allowed the state to keep revenue that otherwise would have had to be refunded. Its pending expiration has increased anxiety about funding education and other state programs.)

Benefield said she hasn’t yet thought through how interest groups that support human services, environmental causes, public safety and transportation improvements would react to a measure that seems to favor education.

Weil’s comments indirectly acknowledged the difficulties. “We’re going to give this a go…We just want to start the debate,” she said, also using the phrase “whenever it goes to the voters.”

Key interests missing from event

Notable for their absence at Wednesday’s news conference were representatives of the “Three Cs” (the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives), Democratic legislative officers, business leaders or higher education executives.

Weil said the Great Futures effort only got rolling in January and that the group felt it needed to move before the legislative session progressed any further. She said she’s talking with business groups and others about the plan.

Representatives of the mainline education interests were nuanced in their reactions.

“It’s a creative proposal; I would applaud their effort,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the school boards association. She also noted that the plan doesn’t address Colorado’s broader problem of conflicting constitutional provisions.

Asked about the resolution’s chances, Urschel said, “It might be a little late in the session to get people on board. [But] I can’t say that it wouldn’t happen.”

Bruce Caughey of CASE said, “They’re forcing the right conversation, and it’s timely” give K-12 budget cuts.

“We really haven’t looked at as an organization, but the ideas are consistent with what we’ve been thinking.”

Like many Front Range school districts, the CEA took a snow day Wednesday, and a spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Three Cs belong a group named Believe in a Better Colorado that has been advocating for a broader fiscal fix, as are a number of other groups, including business and civic organizations. A measure pending in the legislature, Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-001, would ask voters to create a special commission with power to recommend comprehensive changes to constitutional provisions governing finance.

Amendment 23 no longer the answer

Since 2000 Colorado school funding has been governed by Amendment 23. It requires annual state support of schools to be calculated based on enrollment growth and the Denver-Boulder rate of inflation. It also requires a 1 percent annual “bonus” increase on top of that, although that provision expires after the 2010-11 budget year.

A23 supporters hoped it would be a mechanism to return school funding to the levels of the 1980s and would provide a floor above which school spending could rise. Instead, the legislature, its options restricted because K-12 spending takes up so much of the state general fund, has tended to use it as a ceiling in order to have money available for other state programs.

The A23 formula has generated increased school spending every year until now, when state revenues have become so tight (and inflation has shrunk) that the state can’t afford to fund schools under interpretation of A23 that’s been used in the past. Up to now the formula has been applied to all state school support.

The administration of Gov. Bill Ritter and many legislators now subscribe to an interpretation that A23 applies just to base per-pupil support and not to the so-called “factors,” additional money that is used to tailor aid to individual districts based on cost of living, percentages of at-risk students and other factors.

School funding also is at issue in a lawsuit pending in Denver District Court. The case of Lobato v. State argues that the state constitutional requirement for “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” creates a “substantive” right to which “procedural amendments” such as TABOR “must yield.”

A court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could have substantial financial impacts for education, but a final decision likely is years in the future.

Do your homework

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.